You Might As Well Face It: You’re Addicted to Facebook?

Many of us know the feeling of being addicted to our devices. Walking down the streets of Manhattan, I’ve done head counts of the percent of passers-by that are either clutching (like a security blanket) or using their handheld devices –the number ranges between 20% and 75%. And I usually have to count myself!

But recently, researchers have come out with a Facebook Addiction Scale, suggesting that it might not only be an addiction to our devices, but an addiction to what social media do for us and make us feel – an addiction to being connected.

A simple and elegant definition of addiction is The continued use of a mood altering substance or behavior despite adverse consequences.” Does this apply to Facebook use? Here are some of the things to look out for:

  1. You’re preoccupied with Facebook when you’re not online – This has to do with spending “a lot” of time thinking about Facebook or making plans to use Facebook. I’m not sure what counts as a lot – and I don’t think the measure specifies – but this is about the feeling that you are putting excessive mental energy  into Facebook.
  2. You need more Facebook time to get the same pleasure from it – This is called tolerance in the addiction literature. It includes getting “sucked in to” and spending more time on Facebook than intended: like when you’ve logged on to Facebook and then all of a sudden two hours have gone by; or when you feel the compulsion to check Facebook every two minutes.  And key to this is that you often have the urge to use Facebook, and find that you have to use Facebook more and more to get the same pleasure from it. Has anyone ever felt a Facebook high? ……
  3. You use Facebook to feel better or forget about your problems – Like others might drink a glass of wine, pop a pill, etc.,… Personally, I don’t use Facebook in this way, but I imagine it’s like my feeling when I log on to Amazon. I’m not much of a shopper, but being able to get exactly what you want immediately – whether it’s socks or a power wheel for your kid (yes, a big green, awesome power wheel car; all terrain!) – is extremely soothing to me. A study showed that when people use Facebook, physiological signs of stress are reduced. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it might even be good – but it could be part and parcel of the addictive process.
  4. You have tried to reduce your Facebook use without success – Here, the questionnaire is sussing out whether you’ve identified it as a problem, and have tried to cut down on your use of Facebook, but have fallen off the wagon. This is the “uh-oh!” moment.
  5. You experience withdrawal feelings when you don’t use Facebook – This is one that might make more sense for younger people, because one of the key questionnaire items for this issue is “Become restless or troubled if you have been prohibited from using Facebook?” I presume they mean prohibited by parents, but perhaps loved ones could be doing the same (see #6 below). These feelings of dis-ease are a sign that dependence is present.
  6. You find that your use of Facebook has had a negative impact on your life - This final dimension is important for putting the label of addiction on Facebook use – it’s getting in the way of having a healthy life. This includes using Facebook so much that your job/studies/or relationships are suffering. It also includes Facebook taking the place of other important things, such as hobbies, leisure activities, and exercise. Have you ever ignored your partner, family members, or friends because of Facebook?

I bet many of us have shown at least one of these warning signs at some point. Should we be worried? Probably not, unless Facebook use is getting in the way of being a functional person. On the other hand, having even one warning sign should perhaps give us pause.

Some preliminary studies suggest that Facebook addiction occurs more frequently in people who have other addictive problems (no surprise there), as well as among the younger and older. People who worry or are socially anxious also may be at more risk, perhaps because they find Facebook to be an easier way to connect with others. Procrastinators beware – Facebook addiction may also be just another way to avoid work.

So, consider this a public service message. If you feel these warning signs apply to you, it might be time to give it a rest. Or just switch to Pinterest.

Same, Same, But Different: Similarities and Differences Between our Online and Offline Lives

I was having an online dialogue with my friend Mac Antigua about how being an active social media and technology user can change how we relate to the world, and can make us feel that we are always on stage. He directed me to an interesting post about digital classicism.

The whole exchange made me think a lot about how the line between our offline “real life” and our lives online is becoming more blurred. Is there even a need to make this distinction? Isn’t the way we conduct ourselves online just an extension of who we are offline? The answer to this is complex, but I think, nicely summed up in t-shirts that my husband Vivek and I saw all over Bangkok when we visited in 2003 – “Same, same, but different.” At the time, we were pretty puzzled by it but found ourselves constantly quoting it. Later, we found out it’s a common Thai-English phrase meaning just what it sounds like.

I feel like life online is just like this – same, same, but different. How we interact, how we create identity, how we feel special and understood online is the same, same but different from our offline life. Here are three examples of this:

1. What counts as clever.  In the offline world, being clever usually involves being quick-witted: having the fast comeback, thinking on your feet, etc,….But online, you have oodles of time to compose, rewrite, think about, and edit every comment you make. Self-presentation becomes a long-term process rather than a series of quick, face-to-face exchanges that “disappear” as soon as they have happened.  These disappearing impressions are what used to be the basis of our views about each other. Perhaps no more. That’s not to say that many of us don’t dash off the spontaneous tweet or post. It’s just that when we’re trying to be clever, we can take our time about it.

This is nice in some ways, because it has an equalizing effect and gives those of us who are shy or just not speedy thinkers time to express what we mean. This feels like a healthy slowing down. On the other hand, for young people growing up today, does this create less of challenge to their conversational skills? – and conversational skills are definitely learned and need to be practiced. Are kids going to be less able to carry on conversations that occur in real time than their counterparts a decade ago?

At the same time, does the knowledge that everything you post will be documented (forever) create a whole new set of pressures? These pressures are making some young people “drop out” of digital communities like Facebook: Just too much work and scrutiny. It’s nerve-wracking, trying to be clever.

2. It’s OK to brag. I’m actually not sure that it is OK to brag in online communities, but I see a lot more of it online than offline – even though I live in what is perhaps the bragging capital of the world, New York City. For example, when I first started tweeting, I was surprised that people were spending so much time retweeting posts that others made about them, or tooting their horn about something or other.  In the offline world, if someone started saying things like – “Oh, so and so just mentioned what an awesome researcher I am!” – multiple times a day, I would think they were disturbingly self-involved and ego-centric.

This seems to be an important difference between online and offline, because one of the purposes of the digital social network is to get yourself and your work “out there.”  So, perhaps this is exactly what people should be doing. Does this mean that social mores about bragging may be changing? The interesting thing to watch will be whether these tendencies trickle down into our offline lives.

3. Being cool. I’m no expert on cool, but it seems to me that how people are cool online is quite different than the traditional ways of being cool. Online, cool seems to be defined by the number of friends/followers/connections you have, as well as your sheer presence in terms of posts. It’s about how interesting a conduit of information and cutting edge ideas you are. Cool also is something you have time to work at since very little is spontaneous (see #1 above).

In contrast, few are being the strong, silent, aloof type, full of self-confidence and self-control (think James Dean). Instead, everyone seems to be shouting from the rooftops (or whatever the digital analogy would be) what they think and feel and see. It’s a very “look at me” world on-line, not a subtle world of understatement and innuendo. This is a world in which people live out loud, the louder the better.

Online heroes seem to act the same way as us regular folk in this regard – and maybe even worse because of what can be at times their oblivious self-importance. I once followed an actor on Twitter for all of 10 minutes before unfollowing him because the first tweet of his that I read was about the enormous bowel movement he just had. Seriously.

Of course, there is a lot of variability in how people behave online, but based on my observations, this non-James Dean way of being seems to be the norm. One reason for this shift in cool may be that online, tech-savvy geeks rule the world, so the definition of cool has altered to fit their goals and ways of being. Another may simply be a function of the technology. You can’t be strong and silent online because you would never post anything – and you therefore wouldn’t “exist.” One must be active and one must be taking a chance by putting oneself out there.

This breaking down of cool, in this sense, seems cool to me – when it’s not annoyingly self-involved.  And honestly, it is NEVER cool to tweet about your poo.

Social Media: “A Flight from Conversation”?

I’ve started a research project on the impact of social media on our social and emotional lives. When I first began, I carefully considered Sherry Turkle’s work. For the past 15 years, she has written passionately about our evolving relationship with technology. Most recently (see her TED talk), she argues that the way we are using technology, in particular social media, has created “disturbing new habits” that have the potential to make us feel more alone rather than more connected. In other words, we are getting used to being alone, together – being with each other, but elsewhere at the same time. If you’ve ever sat at a table or in a room where everyone was busy on their devices rather than talking with each other, you know what she’s getting at.

I think Sherry Turkle has a lot of important things to say. But she is a divisive character. She does not mince words about what she thinks the implications of our technology habits are in terms of our psychological well-being – more alienation, more aloneness, loss of a capacity for solitude, and stunted development of some of the most basic of social skills, like having a conversation.  What is easy to forget, however, is that she also argues that these are habits that we can all change – if we choose to take a look at how our devices not only change what we do but change who we are.

It’s also important to remember that her research is entirely qualitative and anecdotal. Lab-based and quantitative research remains to be done to test her hypotheses. Below, I list a few ideas that she highlights, along with my ideas about how her hypotheses could actually be tested by empirical, lab-based research. For the record, these issues are not exactly what I am studying now, but stay tuned for blog posts that give you my results hot off the data presses.

1. Social media is a flight from conversation. This is the notion that the more we text, post, and email, the less we actually take time to talk with people. An important issue here is that having a conversation is a skill – one that we learn through practice.  So, where does that leave the kids today, who are trying to gain these skills? Are they going to be a bunch of Neanderthals communicating in non-grammatical text-ese? Probably not – that’s the future dystopia vision – but how will the Millenials learn to communicate?

One way to test this is to actually track teens over time, during periods that are critical for building conversational skills (early adolescence maybe). Then, analyze how differences in the frequency and types of social media use correspond over time with conversational skills and abilities (measured via existing IQ tests that tap verbal comprehension and production or measured via some newly developed measure). The longitudinal component is very important here because if you are looking at social media use and conversation skills at the same time, you can’t draw causal conclusions (i.e., it could just be that those with fewer conversational skills prefer the ease of social media). In contrast, by looking at how social media use predicts a trajectory of conversational development over time, you have firmer ground to stand upon if you conclude that social media use is causing conversational deficits. If supported, such findings lead to a lot of other important questions – like what do we do about it?

2. We are drawn to social media because we can have the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. This is tricky to study empirically because there are several very subjective components to this. One is that we need to measure peoples’ goals accurately – e.g., that people are using social media to gain a sense of companionship. This is self-report based, and there are issues like presentation biases (people might not want to admit why they use social media) that could make such things difficult to measure accurately. Secondly, how do you get at how people feel about the demands of friendship? Will research participants report – “Oh, yes, it’s just too hard dealing with my brother’s emotional demands over the phone all the time. Much easier to text.” Well, maybe some of us would articulate this, but many others might not even be aware that this is what they are doing.

So, in addition to asking people to report on their goals and motivations for social media use, we need to get at implicit processes that they may not be fully conscious of. In the psychology literature, there are tasks such as the Implicit Association Test (IAT). The IAT requires users to make a series of rapid judgments, which researchers believe might reflect attitudes that people are unwilling to reveal publicly. For example, in gender bias research, the IAT has been used to show that most people associate women more strongly with family and men more strongly with careers. Could the IAT be used to examine attitudes towards social media and friendship?

3. We no longer want to give our full attention to anything, and our devices are the way to escape the “boring bits.” This is also tricky. A lot of recent research has examined multi-tasking in terms of whether it compromises your performance on the tasks you’re trying to do at the same time. The answer is: It does. But, in our hearts, we all knew that, didn’t we?

The issue here, though, is somewhat different than multitasking. It’s about the motivation to multitask. The idea is that we multitask to escape boredom, keep our minds busy and moving at all times.  Maybe some of us do it because of low boredom threshold, feeling uncomfortable with our thoughts, or having so much to do that any time we feel there is an “empty” moment, we try to fill it. There are lots of possibilities. But how do we study this? One way might be to actually put people in a boring situation (some staged boring lecture), with their devices, and see when and if they use them. If they do, ask them about the goals they were trying to meet (I had to answer that one email that was in the back of my mind;  I was bored, and wanted to see what was on my twitter feed). Once we have systematic responses to a real-life scenario from multiple people, we can start to seek out trends in the data.

But, this isn’t so satisfying. So, what if we add some biological measures to get at how using the device changes how we actually feel? Now we’re getting somewhere, because this reveals what using devices “buys us” and why we feel almost addicted to our devices at times. For example, one study showed that using Facebook decreases your physiological signs of stress – it calms you down. But in contrast, as I mentioned in a previous blog post, a study published in the January edition of Evolution and Human Behavior found that when girls stressed by a test talked with their moms, stress hormones dropped and comfort hormones rose. When they reached out to their moms via IM, however, nothing happened. Thus, IM’ing with their moms was barely different than not communicating with them at all- was ineffective in conveying comfort.  Taken together, these types of studies help get at why (and why not) devices become an integral part of how we cope, and of our emotional lives.

Bottom line. These are all just ideas. But I believe the bottom line is this: We need the Sherry Turkles of the world to help identify these issues and develop compelling hypotheses (and we need those who would disagree with her), but we also need people to, literally, put these ideas to the test.

Mama’s Always on Stage: Social Media and the Psychological Spotlight

 

In addition to being a shower blogger (see post from two weeks ago), I am also an exerblogger – I talk through blog ideas when I exercise with my trainer Blair. Mostly it’s to take my mind off the unpleasant task of exercising, but really it’s because I have a captive audience – Blair – who is my 20-something sounding board. Blair is not a huge social media user, but like many of his generation, it’s just part and parcel of his social life and the way he thinks about the world. The topic last week was the psychological spotlight.

The notion is that when we use social media, the things we do and say, the way we look, and the things we find interesting seem to have a heightened importance and to be under scrutiny. That is, we know that our lives can be transmitted (by us or others) at any time to the social network, to be seen, heard, and evaluated. So, psychologically, we’re always on stage, in the spotlight. And if we’re always on stage, then maybe, on some level, we are acting and not being fully authentic. Using social media can sometimes feel like being a celebrity walking down the street who knows that the paparazzi are always waiting around the corner.

And this is what is new about social media compared to previous ways of connecting with others – we can share just about anything, via a wide range of media, extremely easily.  We can be seen and heard whenever we want.   And, in turn, we can be nosy parkers and learn a lot about others whenever we want. Decades ago, in her collection of essays, On Photography, Susan Sontag argued that photography creates in people a “chronic voyeuristic relation” to the world around them. But Ms. Sontag did not imagine the level to which social media could take both our voyeuristic and exhibitionistic impulses.

My 3-year-old already gets this, although he doesn’t yet use social media. For him, the impulse to document and to be seen is fully entrenched – “Mama, take a video,” he says, every time he is doing something “cool.” This could be dancing, building blocks, making a funny face, kissing his sister, anything. And every video on demand (that is, he demands the video) ends with my son walking towards me and the device I’m holding to video him saying, “Can I see it? Can I see it?”

And this is what gets me wondering. Am I raising my son to be more self-conscious, more of an exhibitionist, and less authentic about what he says and does, because he knows he will be documented? Because he feels that he is on stage? Does he think he’s special just because he’s being recorded? Maybe not – all kids like to be seen, and among other things, it’s super cute and fun. But the ease of documentation and of sharing with others has taken this natural impulse to a whole new level.

This issue is similar to the debate about self-publishing discussed in a New York Times article over the weekend. The question raised was this:  when parents pay to make their children “published authors,” are they giving children a false sense of self-esteem to the point of self-aggrandizement? Are we ironically, not preparing them for the rigors and tough knocks and rejections of the real world by making everything too easy?  The self-esteem issue here is central because these published child authors feel famous, feel seen because their books are read. They are on stage.

I think there are no clear answers to these issues. I do, however, think that most of us would agree that being on stage is a deeply rooted impulse in our culture today – from reality television to You Tube to Facebook, this has been going on for a long time. Think back to America’s Funniest Home Videos (wait, is that still on?).  I’m not saying this impulse is new, or necessarily bad, but the more central the psychological spotlight becomes to how we all operate, the more we need to take time to understand what it means.

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